Alexander MacDonell of Keppoch (c1698 – 1746) by Norman H. MacDonald.

The interesting posthumous portrait of Alasdair, or Alexander MacDonell of Keppoch, by an unknown artist formerly in the possession of the Constable family in Otley, Yorkshire, descendants of a daughter of the gallant Major MacDonell of Tirnadrish, a hero of the Forty-Five, and now in the possession of Lt. Col. Robert Gayre of Gayre and Nigg, shows the Chief wearing a richly-laced tartan coat, an ornamental shoulder-belt and tartan plaid. The picture bears the date 1765, nineteen years after Keppoch’s death at Culloden. However, the dress worn by Keppoch is contemporary to his lifetime and it may have been copied from an earlier picture, or from a miniature.

Alasdair MacDonell, Chief of Keppoch, was the eldest son of Coll MacDonald, or MacDonell of Keppoch, known in Gaelic as “Colla nam Bň” i.e. “Coll of the Cows”, and of Barbara, a daughter of Sir Donald MacDonald, 3rd Baronet of Sleat. He was, therefore, directly descended from two great houses of Clan Donald, and was a first cousin of Sir Alexander MacDonald of Sleat, who did not support the Prince in 1745.

Little is known of the early life of Alexander of Keppoch. He was a student at the University of Glasgow from 1713 until the Rising of 1715, when he left to join his clan. After the failure of the rising, he and his father, Coll, went into exile in France. He served for a number of years as an officer in the French Army, but for how long is uncertain. He was undoubtedly in Scotland again in 1722, as in that year he witnessed a deed between his father and the Duke of Gordon.

In 1743, Alexander of Keppoch and Stewart of Appin were sent by the Scottish Jacobites to present to Prince Charles and to the French Government, their proposals for another rising. When the Prince landed in Scotland in June 1745, with only seven followers (the seven men of Moidart), Keppoch, like the other chiefs, expressed his disappointment at the absence of the promised French troops. He, however, prevailed upon the wavering chiefs to join the Prince, pointing out that, since His Royal Highness had come among them, it was their duty to defend his person.

To Keppoch went the honour of winning the first engagement of the Forty-Five. On hearing of the approach towards High Bridge, of two companies of The Royal Scots which had been sent from Fort Augustus to strengthen the garrison at Fort William, he despatched his cousin, Donald MacDonell of Tirnadrish with about a dozen men and a piper to hold the bridge until a sufficient number of the Clan could be gathered to engage them. So successful were Tirnadrish and his little band of followers by the use of strategy, that the redcoats were tricked into thinking that Keppoch’s whole following were concealed in the woods on the bank of the river Spean, which lay directly before them. Captain Scott, who connnanded the soldiers, sent two of his men forward to discover the strength of their opponents. Both were seized by the MacDonalds. Scott then ordered his men to make an orderly retreat in the direction of Fort Augustus. They got as far as Laggan Achdarom near the head of Loch Lochy where they found their passage blocked by a strong body of Glengarry MacDonalds. The demoralised soldiers, seeing this new threat and the increasing number of Keppoch men in pursuit, broke ranks and became a rabble despite the repeated remonstrances of their commanding officer. Eventually, the column found itself surrounded and Scott formed them in square. The Highlanders then began a heavy fire and a number of soldiers were killed and wounded. At this critical moment, Keppoch arrived on the scene with a further body of men and, taking in the situation at a glance, advanced alone, sword in hand, and called on Captain Scott, who had himself been wounded, to surrender. Realising the hopelessness of his position, Scott acquiesced. Lochiel arrived soon after with a strong body of Camerons, and the prisoners were placed between the MacDonalds and Camerons, and conveyed to Achnacarry, en route to Glenfinnan.

Keppoch led three hundred trusty blades to the Prince at Glenfinnan. When the Jacobite army lay at Perth, Keppoch and young Clanranald made a successful raid on Dundee and captured two ships containing a cargo of much-needed arms and ammunition.

At the Council of War held at Duddingston before Prestonpans, Keppoch was selected by the chiefs present to be their spokesman. In the battle which followed the three MacDonald regiments of Clanranald, Glengarry and Keppoch (the Glencoe men were merged into Keppoch’s Regiment), fought with distinction on the right wing of the front line of the Jacobite Army. Keppoch’s brother Archibald was killed in the action.

At Falkirk, the Keppoch men again behaved with great gallantry but had the misfortune to lose their gallant Major, Donald of Tirnadrish, the hero of High Bridge who, mistaking some of Hawley’s men for Lord George Drummond’s Regiment, was taken prisoner.

In March 1746, after capturing Fort Augustus, Keppoch and Lochiel were sent with a detachment to invest Fort William, but the approach of Cumberland caused the siege to be raised. Keppoch arrived at the Prince’s camp with 200 of his followers on the night of the 15th April, in time to take part in the abortive night march to Nairn. He was among those chiefs who advised against giving battle on the ground which had been chosen on Culloden Moor.

The MacDonalds were given the left wing of the front line on this occasion, which they naturally regarded as a slight after their earlier performances on the battlefield during the campaign, and because they considered it to be their privilege to have the place of honour i.e. the right wing, which King Robert the Bruce had granted to their illustrious ancestor, Angus Og, for the part he and his men played at the Battle of Bannockburn, four centuries earlier. The blame for this must be put squarely on Lord George Murray who insisted on having the Atholl Battalion on the right. Nevertheless, contrary to some reports, the MacDonalds on the left far from disgraced themselves. They had immediately in their front, marshy ground and a greater distance to cover to reach the enemy than had their comrades in the centre and on the right. The suddenness of the charge by the MacIntoshes in the centre, and their swerve to the right, left the MacDonald right flank exposed. Gordon of Glenbucket was ordered to fill the gap by bringing forward his men from the second line, but they were without broadswords.

These incidents led to some hesitation among the MacDonalds and Keppoch, seeing this, sprang forward, sword raised, but perceiving no immediate movement behind him is said to have cried (according to Sir Walter Scott), “My God, has it some to this, that the children of my clan have forsaken me.” He then rushed forward, followed first by a few of his officers and then by his whole regiment. They had not gone far when Keppoch was struck by a ball and fell, but they continued for some distance, many of them being shot down, including Keppoch’s brother Donald, who was killed instantly. They made three unsuccessful feints to draw the enemy’s fire and then through a gap in the smoke, they saw the repulse of the centre and right of the Jacobite Army and the advance of the Butcher’s cavalry to cut off their retreat. Realising that the day was lost, they began to retire, and found Keppoch lying wounded on the ground over which they had charged.

They lifted and carried their dying Chief of the field, and as they marched together in a body under his son, Angus Ban, he expired. When they reached a little hut near the battlefield they left Keppoch’s body there beside many dead and wounded comrades and were then compelled to look to their own safety. The Butcher’s soldiers soon burned the hut with all its occupants.

Thus ended the career of “that mirror of martial men” whose name is inscribed on the parchment of fame.